Debunking the winter weather myth of the banded woolly bear caterpillars

COLUMBUS (WCMH)—Winter is just around the corner, and we can’t but wonder what’s coming our way?

After two very mild, relatively snowless winters in a row—just 17.1 inches in 2015-16, and 9.3 inches in Columbus in 2016-17—it is tempting to say we are due for a cold, snowy winter on balance. But while we await Mother Nature’s alignment of the jet stream, cold air supply, and northern Asia and Canada snow cover, our furry friends and insects are thought to provide some early indications of what we can expect.

Scouring an assortment of banded woolly bear caterpillars in central Ohio, the general consensus is that the broad brown middle band favors yet another milder-than-average winter. However, naturalists insist that we should not put much stock in the winter weather folklore surrounding those familiar signs in nature.

“There’s actually no relationship with the weather and the color markings,” said Dr. David Shetlar, an Ohio State University entomologist.

Columbus Metro Parks naturalist Craig Biegler added that the color of the Isabella tiger moth caterpillars that overwinter locally by creating their own antifreeze, in order to make it through the cold, largely reflect conditions at the time they were hatched in late spring and early summer.

“It’s just a random genetic variation,” said Biegler. “They’re not telling us anything about the winter to come.”

Even more confusing is that there are six varieties of soon-to-be tiger moths, and some are big, black and furry, which could be mistaken for a prediction of a harsh winter.

Similar winter weather folklore regarding the accumulation of acorns, walnuts and hickory nuts on the ground as a sign of a rough winter ahead don’t hold up, according to area naturalists, who say this these patterns occur every three to five years, and represent the way a tree survives, since predators claim much of what ends up on the ground for food. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others and keep the conversation on topic and civil. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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